I became a Christian at a Bible summer camp when I was eight years old. That was seventeen years ago, and I’ve been in the church even longer. Over the years, I attended a Christian college, went to Christian camps and conferences, and heard countless sermons. Yet despite listening to over two decades of teaching, I found that, as an adult, I couldn’t easily summarize Christianity. I’m fluent in the habits and routines of the faith, but I can’t really articulate a “what is faith” elevator pitch.
I came closer to finding that elevator pitch in a story I recently read about Jesus. However, the pitch was a little different from the one I grew up on.
When the leaders at that Bible camp taught me how to put my faith in Jesus, they used what’s called the ABC approach. It’s an acronym of each step of a conversion to faith in Jesus: you A) Admit you’re a sinner, B) Believe Jesus forgave you, and then C) Confess Jesus as the Lord of your life. (As you can see, I went into the guest room of my house and prayed to become a Jesus-follower. However, I forgot to use the ABC’s, so I doubled up and prayed again a few minutes later, that time using the approach.)
Just as a child learns their ABC’s and then goes on to learn words, sentences, and paragraphs, I also had to learn how to build on the ABC formula and get some direction for how day-to-day Christian life was supposed to look post-conversion. This generally meant living by Biblical morals and telling other people about Jesus.
As I got older, I learned more and more about Christianity. I had to feel out the boundaries of Christian ethics (Viva La Vida came out in high school, so an important question was, “Is it ok to listen to Coldplay?”) and become familiar with doctrinal disagreements among groups of believers (“Did God choose who’d be saved?”). Every Christian has to think through these kinds of questions, but they can have the effect of being distracting. It’s the classic tree and forest problem: when thinking through a particular question, you can stare at it so long you forget the tenor of the whole.
As an aside, the essence of Christianity is also inscrutable for many people who don’t follow Jesus. The combined effect of our confusing doctrinal disagreements, the many different shades of worship practices, and sometimes noisy political statements is that many aren’t sure what Jesus and faith are all about.
That’s where this story about Jesus comes in.
Like I said, I’ve heard Christian teaching all my life. But I felt that a lot of what I knew was hear-say, the distillations of texts pastors had preached on. I wanted to get the summary of Christianity from my own Bible reading. As I read, I came across a conversation Jesus had with a man, and it surprised me.
The conversation caught my eye because, in it, Jesus says a man has faith, but the man’s “faith” doesn’t look like the ABC method of my childhood. For context, here’s the basic gist of the story:
Some have called it “The Faith of a Centurion” (it’s verses 5-13 here). It’s set about 2,000 years ago when Israel was under Roman rule, and it goes like this:
- A centurion comes up to Jesus. (Centurions were officers in the Roman military in charge of one hundred soldiers. Jesus was a Jewish man with zero soldiers.)
- The centurion has bad news. He says, “My servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”
- Jesus has been healing a lot of people, and right away he says he’ll come over to his house and heal the servant.
- The centurion kind of asks Jesus not to come to his house, but rather to heal from a distance. (This is something he evidently believes Jesus can do.)
- He explains that he’s not worthy to have Jesus over, but that he, too, is “a man of authority” who tells people to do things, and they do it.
- To me, the man’s explanation seems a non-sequitur, but Jesus is very impressed. He says the centurion has faith.
- In fact, Jesus says this man has faith unlike that of any Jesus has found among his people (other Jews in Israel). Jesus then says these Israelites will be cast out, while outsiders are welcomed into heaven at the end of time.
You may find this story confusing for any number of reasons. But, again, to me this story is confusing because Jesus says the centurion has faith, but the man’s apparent faith doesn’t look like the approach I was taught by my Bible camp teachers. The centurion doesn’t even mention sin or forgiveness, two things I thought were central to faith. But the centurion comes to Jesus with at least two other things: 1) a problem and 2) a conviction that Jesus can do something about it.
Jesus responds with amazement.
I think Jesus’ response hints at something essential about Christian faith: that Jesus is open to those who are willing to admit their neediness and come to him with what they have. The notes in my study Bible say the centurion recognized Jesus as Israel’s Messiah (a cornerstone of Christian theology). But even if he wasn’t there yet in his faith, even if he just had faith that Jesus was an authoritative man with the power to heal, he came with humility and neediness to Jesus.
Maybe later Jesus would ask him to put his faith in more doctrines, like, for example, repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But the centurion at least, as Zack Eswine says, brought Jesus the faith he did have for the problems he had at the moment.
And that’s the surprising thing I’m learning. Jesus isn’t only interested in healing my sins; he’s also interested in me bringing my neediness to him. Neediness isn’t exactly something I am used to admitting or even seeing in myself, anxious control-freak that I am.
This doesn’t mean I’m done with the elevator pitch of what Christianity is in the day-to-day. But it gets me one step closer, because it teaches me what putting my faith in Jesus looks like: learning to cultivate neediness and bringing my problems to someone who is ready to come to my house when I tell him something’s wrong.